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Auto workers: concessions and resistance

By: 
Ritch Whyman

November 18, 2016

The narrow 55 per cent acceptance of the new contract by Ford Canada employees, brought to end the third round of bargaining by the union representing autoworkers (UNIFOR) and GM, Chrysler and Ford.

Despite the automakers making massive profits the pattern set by the union leadership, while containing small gains and bonuses, included many concessions and setbacks for not just autoworkers by all workers in Canada and Quebec. Furthermore it maintained previous concessions made at the height of the financial collapse.

Concessions

The contracts maintain a 10-year “grow in” wage grid, where new employees will take 10 years to get to the same wage as more senior employees. Wages will go up by barely 4 per cent over the four year deal, in exchange for such paltry increases as annual bonuses. Furthermore the usual Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) designed to help keep wages in line with inflation has been suspended, so workers’ wages will fall below the cost of living again.

Despite being part of the Canadian Labour Congress’ campaign to defend and expand public pensions, the union leadership essentially abandoned the notion that new employees will ever see a company pension. The new contract relegates new hires into what is basically an RRSP plan. Meaning the future of new employees will be paying fees to Bay St. vultures, and dependent on the whims of the market.

This concession will embolden other employers to erode what few retirement securities exist for workers. If profitable Ford and Chrysler can force autoworkers to give up pensions, then why wouldn’t other employers follow suit? It also opens the door to further pension rollbacks in the next round of bargaining four years from now.

Rank-and-file

Despite these concessions the most interesting and important aspect of the recent round, isn’t what was in the agreements but the amount of rank-and-file opposition they generated, especially at Ford.

UNIFOR began its bargaining with perhaps the weakest employer financially, GM. From the onset the union framed bargaining around the question of gaining new investment guarantees from the company to maintain employment at GM Canada locations, in particular the Oshawa assembly plant. The Oshawa plant has seen employment fall from 23,000 in the mid 80’s to roughly 2,600 today. There were threats that the loss of the Camaro wouldn’t be replaced and the plant could begin to wind down in the near future.

With a back drop of fear about plant closings and the union having said only new investment and government subsidies could save jobs, GM workers gave the lowest ratification vote in recent memory. Despite the promise that 700 temporary employees would be made full time, the contract was only ratified by 65 per cent despite a hard sell by the leadership. Dissatisfaction with no changes to the wage grid drove the low vote result.

Despite promises that investments will mean jobs are secure, this hasn’t been the case in the past, nor does the small print confirm all of the promised investment. Previous contracts also held out the promise of new investment, but then, like now, the agreement with the company stated investment depended on “market conditions”, and government subsidies.

At Ford the contract was outright rejected at the Oakville assembly plant and was only passed due to votes at the Windsor and Essex plants and parts warehouses in Edmonton and Brampton. Sadly sections of UNIFOR’s leadership played the anger in Oakville at the agreement off against job fears in Windsor.

Trade union bureaucracy

When UNIFOR local 707 (which represents Ford Oakville workers) stated that the GM agreement wouldn’t be accepted, the local leadership in Windsor unfortunately denounced them as irresponsible and “gambling” with jobs. That by standing up to Ford Oakville workers were being “greedy” became part of the narrative to try to beat them into line.

Rumours were spread about Ford having an “exit” plan from Oakville if the deal wasn’t accepted. This was the same notion spread about GM. In the end the local leadership, despite its initial opposition to such a deal, ended up defending it and pushing employees to vote for it.

Despite all these threats an astounding 55 per cent of employees rejected the offer in Oakville.

The rejection of the deal was driven by anger that UNIFOR had gutted pensions for new hires and maintained the 10-year wage grid. The leadership was booed by sections of the crowd.

UNIFOR’s leadership increased anger when they tried at the Oakville ratification vote to claim this was a better deal than what the UAW (the union for US Autotworkers at Ford) obtained. Not realising that a quick check on your phones currency convertor proved this a lie.

Looking ahead

The rejection at Ford Oakville wasn’t only driven by newer hires stuck on the grow in grid and hybrid pensions, but by senior employees showing solidarity with new hires. The rejection is also based on the general deterioration of conditions at the workplace over the last four years.

The strength of the rejection at Oakville spells problems for UNIFOR’s leadership in four years. Currently of the 5,000 employees at ford Oakville over 2,000 are newer hires. Over 1,000 senior employees are already or close to qualifying for retirement. This means that employees on the wage grid likely will be the majority next round.

The continuance of the wage grid, low wage increases and ending of defined benefit pensions puts in question whether UNIFOR will be able to gain new support, let alone keep current supporters, at Toyota and Honda plants in Southern Ontario.

Every union activist should be concerned by the new agreement and prepare for what it may mean in bargaining with other employers. But there is also the glimmer of hope of young and new hires stating they want to fight against the corporate greed of Ford.

In a month when young workers opposed the CLC leadership and turned their backs on Justin Trudeau at a young workers conference, and young workers in Oakville opposed their leadership and said no, clearly there is a mood to fight amongst a militant minority in the union movement.

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